Commercials – there are few things so annoying as having your attention interrupted to be told how unhappy you are and how happy you could be if you just spent a little bit of money.
Advertising is something that has been woven into our culture, but it’s not unique to human beings – it happens in the animal kingdom as well. The peacock is an obvious example of biology that has evolved well beyond simple functional need. That big, beautiful plume of feathers is hardly necessary for flight or camouflage. In fact, it seems to be a hindrance to both of those mechanisms that would serve so well to evade being eaten.
Advertising stabs at our most basic needs – while the peacock’s frilly and beautiful display is definitely not for direct functional utility the end goal is sex, and sex is for the end goal of survival by way of propagating the species through time.
Of course, mankind has gone well beyond wearing a flashy tunic just to get laid. I mean, we definitely still do that; just look at the fashion industry. But despite our elaborate methods and messages that we spread to sell highly developed products and services, the base motivations and desires remain the same.
Throughout the work week I am often around a radio that is kept on for background music so I’m regularly exposed to commercials; there are two that have been playing over and over recently that don’t sit very well with me. One is for a popular food delivery service and the other is for a coffee shop promoting what is claimed to be an incomparably delicious sandwich… which is basically made of candy.
Both are promoting eating – one of the most basic survival needs – but that’s where it’s a little misleading. Both are shooting for our justification of “well, I need to eat,” but neither is actually selling survival. They are both, in fact, selling luxury.
The delivery service’s ad paints a picture of the typical blue-collar worker and touches on all the possibly annoying events in a typical workday, and it ends with “you deserve so much better than this! Call us to deliver food to your house!” The other commercial is selling a sandwich that uses waffles instead of bread using a quick back and forth conversation that ends with a request for a bite which is returned with a scoff and a “you wish!”
Ah yes, there’s nothing like celebrating the majesty that is modern-day life by taking waffles, putting highly processed meat between them, then having it all delivered straight to your couch. Because life is hard and if there’s one thing you don’t want to put any energy or long-term vision into, it’s what you put inside of your body.
Both are promoting the end goal of the customer eating – a basic survival need. If, however, they aren’t selling the need to feed, what are they doing? They are selling lack through the mechanism of entitlement. If you feel that you’re missing out on something that you already deserve then you will be immensely dissatisfied with the fact that you don’t already have it.
This is the basic mechanism of advertising and it works uncomfortably well – the creation of a feeling of need by way of instilling a feeling of “not enough.” And yes, you can believe me – this is what advertisers are trained to do. I did earn a post-secondary marketing diploma so I’ve been through the official “how to sell stuff” educational path myself. I was excited in the first term when they taught us to “find out what the customer wants and then purse that product line.” I thought it was honest and authentic that they were training us to put the consumer and their needs as the focus.
The second term and all the rest after were promptly followed with lessons like “here’s how to generate a feeling of need for your product in the consumer’s mind” and “here’s ways to lay out your product so the consumer will have to look at absolutely everything in the store before they find it.”
I don’t want to name anyone specifically, but I have some Ikeas about which store may have employed that second strategy thoroughly.
The average person definitely doesn’t need someone to deliver food to them, nor do they need a sandwich that uses waffles for a bun. The commercials that are replaying on the radio every fifteen minutes are indeed selling luxury, and the delivery service is playing quite directly into that in their advertisement: they paint a picture where you’re frustrated at work, more frustrated in traffic, then you get home and “on your 52 inch flat screen TV all you have is…. basic cable. You deserve better.”
I find myself getting frustrated just typing this – entitlement is a problem in our culture and this commercial is playing right into that. I understand that they’re using this mechanic because it’s relatable and using the example of a big TV that only has basic cable gives us a laugh. I mean, who’s still “stuck” watching basic cable?
This is the definition of the popular saying “first world problems.” We already have so much that we have the added luxury of pining over our luxuries as if they were necessities. I mean, you’re obviously going to be watching the TV tonite, right? That drive home was hard. So what’s on the screen had better be good!
The problem is that there is no such thing as innocent, one-off comments like these. Advertising only ever works by playing in to our emotions and while this one purports to use humor it’s really using the dissatisfaction that entitlement brings.
“Haha… I am frustrated with my stupid coworkers. And traffic is a terrible part of the day. But that’s just the way it is so I might as well laugh about it and soothe myself.”
Of course we don’t think of it this directly – we truly are masters of self deception. Don’t think so? Well then I have bad news for you because that’s all a part of convincing yourself that you’re in more control than you think you are. Myself very much included.
When it comes to our day-to-day actions our subconscious actually does the strong majority of our decision-making for us. But this is difficult for us to accept – our conscious perception of things has trouble accepting that it’s not the one in full control. Our ego is so against this concept that once we have gone through the motions of some routine of the subconscious the conscious mind will immediately scan the event and find any and every believable justification as to why and how it was all an active and lucid choice.
Advertisers depend on this and use it to great effect. Familiarity is by far the biggest draw for us and we will prioritize it over almost everything else. We will go with the comfort of the familiar even if it comes with other discomforts – like finding ourselves in the same abusive, dysfunctional relationships time and again.
Familiarity is not a difficult thing to establish as long as there is enough time and money. This is why companies will put their logo on almost everything. You’ll see that image time and time again until it becomes a normalized part of your daily routine. You will identify with that brand without even recognizing it – these are the ruts in the road of our subconscious and almost none of them happen on purpose.
Sadly, one of the big reasons for fast food chains putting their logo all over their food wrappings is because they know that people litter, and once their product is blowing around all over downtown streets people will see it over and over again. Not what you might call ethical exposure but it’s easily written off as “we didn’t put the litter there, it’s not on us!” As they say, there is no such thing as bad press.
I do have an issue with the ethical choices of advertising through packaging choices but my particular tangent today is not about the litter, it’s about the sociological communications that are conveyed and reinforced through these repeating messages.
The commercial for the waffle sandwich goes something like this:
Gary: What’s that?
Joan: Waffle sandwich.
Gary: Whoa, looks delicious.
Joan: It is.
Gary: Can I have a bite?
Joan: *scoffs* You wish!
I understand what they’re going for here – they’re making a humorous stab at the sandwich being so tasty that there’s no way you’ll want to share it. Not only is this promoting selfishness, it’s making a joke out of it.
“I bought this happiness myself and it’s all mine. It’s ridiculous that you would think you could have any.”
I have thought about what it might look like if they used the same structure for the commercial but promoted something more positive:
Gary: What’s that?
Joan: Waffle sandwich.
Gary: Whoa, looks delicious. Can I have a bite?
Joan: *laughs* Of course!
Gary: *bite* it is delicious. I’m getting one…. yum, I’m glad I got one.
Joan: So… can I have a bite?
Gary: *laughs* Of course!
This still uses the mechanism that the sandwich is irresistibly delicious but through a situation of generosity. This is important – while it may seem innocent to have a commercial that uses selfishness for satire there are no innocent one-offs when it comes to communication, particularly with messages like this that are played dozens of times a day across multiple broadcasting networks.
Everything we do and say reinforces some pattern or belief that’s already in us. Given that we’re a “first world problem” society of mild to severe entitlement it’s important that we not give way to playing into our negative traits to sell some luxury. This only strengthens our belief in these patterns whether we want to accept that or not.
These big companies that spread these messages carry a responsibility that is not to be taken lightly. There is no ruling body that dictates what we accept as normal in society, it is simply a collective case of “we are what we repeatedly do.” And if we are repeating messages and actions of selfishness and entitlement, we will only strengthen our dependence on these modes of operation.
The Bright Side of this is that there is wonderful opportunity for these big companies to spread messages of generosity and love. What is required is to accept that joking about our negative and destructive traits is harmful and accept the burden of responsibility that they are not just selling a sandwich and coffee, they are selling our identity and way of life as well.
There is great potential in the power for good and those that lead the way with positivity have the power to be a role model for a better future. I can promise you that this has much more long-term potential for the stability of their brand than trying to get a few chuckles while making people feel that they’re already less.
We are all ripples in the pond of our existence and one day we will recognize the power in looking at the Bright Side. Not foolishly or blindly, but with all the power inherent in living through one’s strengths.
Until next time folks, keep your heads up and your hearts open.